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Do I need to wear a Burqa in UAE? 

by CATHERINE SUNDHER. 07 July 2011



Will I have to wear a burqa? That certainly was a question I wondered about before moving to the Middle East.


As I truly embraced the freedoms and opportunities that “my western world” had to offer, this was definitely not something I planned on doing. For years, I had absorbed horrendous stories of religious fanaticism, injustices, and terror that extremists were inflicting around the globe. I’d come to believe, women wearing a burqa symbolized powerlessness and despair. Not so.


In the UAE, burqa refers to a “falcon-wing” shaped face covering that is painted or dyed gold, then rubbed until very shiny. Originally, its purpose was to reflect the sun from the faces of women working in the fields. Now only a handful of older Bedouin women continue to wear them. More often though, burqa refers to a head to toe poncho type garment with small slits or mesh around the eyes; this is commonly worn in Afghanistan.


In this sovereign state, what most women choose to wear is called an abaya (neck to toe black robe) and sheela(headscarf). Covering their ‘ornaments’ (body and hair) in public makes an important statement of their faith and by being black in color, allows for the fabric to be ultra sheer yet not see-through. In order to visit the Grand Mosque, all women are provided with and required to wear the traditional abaya and sheela.


Among Arab nations, Abu Dhabi is definitely one of the more tolerant and progressive. It’s an Islamic country deeply rooted in its customs, yet open-minded to western influences and ideas. Islam’s teachings and practices affect not only what a Muslim eats, drinks and wears, but it’s a way of life.


For the new generation of Emirati women, culture and tradition remain a top priority yet their fervor for worldwide fashion trends is evident. Black abayas on the cutting edge of design ensure their modesty while underneath, theatrical make-up and bold fashion statements are the norm—not in a club, but at the shopping malls! In the thousands of windowless saloons, a staggering $870 million was spent last year (in UAE) in the name of beauty. Adorned with designer handbags, heels and oversize sunglasses, many resemble fashion models—certainly not oppressed women.


After being here for many months, Emirati women still continue to be a huge mystery to me. Homes where large extended families live and socialize are shielded from prying eyes by high walls and heavy drapes earnestly guarding their privacy. They rarely attend public sporting or social events (especially if there’s alcohol) and do not normally mingle with expats. Even for those in the work place, it’s strictly “business”.


Former US Senator Bill Frist stated (in his book A Heart to Serve), “Education is the cornerstone of our community and our country”. This certainly rings true in the UAE. The top priority for over 70% of young women is to attain a post secondary education. After graduation, their challenge then lies with finding rewarding employment as not all families are open-minded. Fathers and husbands still hold legal authority as to whether daughters or wives can work and if so, preferably where they’ll be minimal exposure to men. Much of the restriction and disparity comes from cultural traditions rather than Islam itself. Slowly, though, women are bridging the barriers of their traditional roles with modern ways of thinking, setting new standards for this region.


The winds of change are indeed sweeping across the Arab World. Some say, women are the key to Islam’s modernization and here in the Gulf, they’re making great strides as they move towards a more independent mindset. I’m hopeful, one day, all women will have “choice”.


One step at a time.

Catherine Sundher, Abu Dhabi, UAE


Catherine is a West Coast girl who feels fortunate to call Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) as her “home-base”. Curious by nature and with a perpetual desire for new challenges, Catherine has moved from the “Travel Industry to Design” with numerous stops along the way. As Gilbert Chesterson wrote, “Why Not” is a slogan for an interesting life.

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